Thursday, 3 September 2015

Grosse Ile: lessons in migration

The view east from Grosse Ile out towards the gulf of St. Lawrence

Last weekend we went to Grosse Ile, an island in the beautiful Isle-aux-Grues archipeligo that lies east of Quebec City in the St. Lawrence river. The island was formerly used as a quarantine station for immigrants to Eastern Canada, and Grosse Ile is a name that still resonates for many Irish people.

Towards the western end of the island there is a small field marked with a few white crosses.

The Irish cemetery, Grosse Ile

Here lie the remains of more than 5000 Irish men, women and children who arrived at this island during the summer and autumn of 1847. They came in search of a new life in North America, fleeing the famine in Ireland, crossing the Atlantic in terrible conditions in a voyage that took seven weeks or more crowded in to the rough hold of a cargo ship. Many died during the sea crossing, others arrived suffering from diseases (typhus mainly) and died on Grosse Ile.

At the western tip of the island there is a memorial to these unfortunate people in the form of a celtic cross.

The inscription on the cross is in Irish and says that they died fleeing “foreign tyranny” and an “artificial famine”.

In the visitor centre we learn that there were many Irish children on the island who were orphaned and that they were adopted by French-Canadian families. Consequently many Quebecers have some Irish ancestry, and you will often meet Francophones with Irish surnames.

As we visit the island the news is filled with stories of other unfortunate migrants. So far this year almost 2000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean, on the treacherous voyage to Europe in search of a better life. Last week, more than 70 people were found dead in the back of truck in Austria, as they tried to reach Germany.

For me, this refugee crisis of 2015 resonates with the Irish tragedy of 1847. History has not been kind to the people and politicians of the 1840's who did little while the Irish starved, drowned and died of diseases. I suspect that history will not be kind to us in this generation either unless we respond to this crisis. People are dying in their thousands while we mess around with Eurozone immigration policies and Greek banking problems. This is the European disaster of our generation - it is the single most important thing for us to deal with now. Where is the leadership from Ireland and from Canada to resolve this crisis which we can understand only too well?

Sorrowful remembrance of the dead is worth little unless it makes us resolve to save those still living.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Not a trombone in sight...

They don't give a damn about any trumpet [or trombone!] playin' band
It ain't what they call rock and roll
So said the Sultans of Swing and who am I to argue? So here's some some brilliant stripped-down rock and roll from The White Stripes.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Do you know what we need? More trombones, that's what!

There's no more uplifting sound than a trombone in a ska or rock band. I've researched this on my stereo over the past few hours and I've had a great evening; there's no doubt in my mind the world would be a better place with more trombones and trombone players.

I think I'll buy some trombone lessons for the boys, surprise them when they come back from camp. I'll play these two songs for them and they'll be so enthusiastic.

This is going to be great!

POSTSCRIPT, September 11th 2015:

The trombonist in that great recording from The Specials, Rico Rodriguez, passed away last week. And although my boys love that song I failed to convince any of them to take up the trombone!

Net result: the world is down a trombonist. Not good...  

Monday, 6 July 2015

Sunday afternoon at Croker watching the Dubs hammer some culchies

Last Sunday was the first time for the boys to see a live GAA match - we were at Croke Park for the Leinster semi-final between Dublin and Kildare. I hadn't been at a Gaelic match myself for at least 35 years (gulp), but some things hadn't changed: it was my Uncle Jimmy who sorted the tickets and brought the sweets. Everyone should be lucky enough to have an Uncle Jimmy!

The Dubs were in brilliant form and ripped Kildare apart, scoring some great goals.

And we had a great view from our seats in the Cusack stand.

At the end of our holiday in Dublin my youngest son picked up a book at the airport shop - he loves “Where's Wally?” so he couldn't resist:

And inside there's a picture of Croke Park. Do ye see the boys and me with Uncle Jimmy??

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Adventures in Advertising

April 30th.

I'm having a joyless lunch at Subway. The sullen teenager behind the counter has built the sandwich according to my precise specifications, but I know from experience that no matter the combination of bread, filling and condiments, the end result always tastes like a bland Subway sandwich. So I've not come for the sandwich but for the Superhero toy that goes with it. Yesterday my 7-year-old son cried hot, ang‎ry tears for the lack of this toy; his best friend has lots of them because the lucky boy eats at Subway everyday, or so I understand through sobs. 

Later after work I arrive at his school with a smile and present my son with the Avengers puzzle. Of course ‎it's the wrong toy. There are more hot, angry tears while I contemplate another Subway lunch.  Consuming processed meats is a factor in high cholesterol and colon cancer but perhaps that's a small price to pay for a 7-year-old's smile and a big hug. Thanks Subway!

May 2nd

My 14-year-old son's soccer team has been invited to play a pre-season game against a strong girls' team: 14-year-old boys against 16-year-old girls.  The game is sponsored by Coca Cola, "a celebration of the upcoming women's world cup in Canada". It quickly becomes apparent that a Coca Cola celebration means making a commercial. The boys stand around while the girls repeat their entrance on to the pitch at least three times (I lose count) until it is done to the satisfaction of the director. When the game finally kicks off, play is somewhat disrupted by the film crew camped out in the centre circle. At 2-0 to the boys, the action is suspended to stage a goal by the girls - boys and girls are visibly embarrassed.

At the end of the "game" the players are given soccer kits, iTunes vouchers and a meal at a local restaurant. 

"Ils ont profité de nous" says my son when we get home. Yes they did, but I think he learned something too. Thanks Coca Cola!

June 22nd

OMG it's even worse than I feared, “even better than the real thing” as Bono warned - the Coke advertisement shows an event the occurred in the mind of the director only and certainly not on the soccer pitch. It's actually pretty impressive, in a dishonest manipulative way. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Tomas Tranströmer is no more

A few months ago I mangled one of his poems, trying to get my mouth around eccentric Swedish vowels, and now he's gone. What have I done?

Robin Fulton wrote his obituary in The Guardian, but it doesn't say much to anyone who isn't already a fan. Better to read or listen to his poems - like this one, with a translation by the same Robert Fulton and a recording of Tomas himself reading it: Svenska hus ensligt belägna / Solitary Swedish Houses.

Farväl Tomas.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A History of Ireland

Come on in to The Hairy Bowsie for a few pints and hear Ding Dong Denny's history of Ireland. "I know we can laugh at the famine now but it was dreadful at the time..."

OK it's not LOL funny but I love how he makes fun of the piousness of the official history of Ireland. 

Ding Dong also sings some woeful songs, but their titles are brilliant, such as his lament over the famine "The Potatoes Aren't Looking The Best" and his rousing rebel ballad "The Craic We Had The Day We Died For Ireland". Deadly!

Monday, 19 January 2015

Off by heart - the payoff

I mentioned in my last off-by-heart update (Off by heart - halfway there) that Jim Harrison's poem Bridge presented quite a challenge to learn. My trouble with it was the lack of any rhyme or rhythm that I could discern - maybe it's not a poem at all but poetic prose? Anyway I did manage to get it in to my head, eventually, and I'm pleased about that because I really do like some of the lines:
I like it out here high above the sea bundled
up for the arctic storms of late fall,
the resounding crash and moan of the sea,
the hundred foot depth of the green troughs.
I discovered it a few years ago in an episode of the Writer's Almanac on NPR - that program is one of my secret pleasures when stuck in traffic on the way to work.

With that committed to memory I had two poems of my original six still to learn, and they were a real pleasure as I had saved two favourites for the end. Ever since I first became fluent in Swedish more than 20 years ago I've wanted to learn some Swedish poetry; it has always seemed to me a very poetic language not just in how it sounds but in how it feels in my mouth when I speak it: rich, resonant, a bit complicated and occasionally tongue-twisting. It was Seamus Heaney who led me to the poet, Tomas Tranströmer, in the tribute he made in this video:

I settled on Tranströmer's poem Romanska bågar, not least because there is a recording of the poet himself reciting it on YouTube, so I had something to aim at. Learning it was not too difficult, and my Swedish daughter Emily corrected my worst mispronunciations (the last syllable of "människa" gave some troubles as did "solsjudande" where I had my usual difficulty with the "u" sound. I have struggles with "u" in both French and in Swedish - that flat Dublin accent will out).

So with that poem off by heart I finished off the sextet with the poem I heard Clive James recite and which inspired me: The Sunlight on the Garden by Louis MacNeice.  The internal rhymes in this poem ring out as I speak it:
The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying
That's doom-laden and fantastic!

Thanks to Clive James for many years of inspiration and, happily, it seems his health has stabilised a bit. He gave another interview just before Christmas and he was as interesting as ever.

And I've a new list of poems learn. This is so enjoyable, I should have started years ago.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Christmas at the Maison symphonique de Montréal

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Handel's Messiah and The Fairytale of New York so lucky me, I experienced both of them in the acoustically perfect Maison symphonique.

The Messiah was performed by Les Violons du Roy with the choir of La Chapelle de Québec and as always they were sonically brilliant. Of the four soloists it was the two male voices that were outstanding; the tenor Allan Clayton delivered a fierce yet melodic “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron” while bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams rattled the walls in “The people that walked in darkness”.

My evening was only very slightly “marred” by the usual shenanigans around the Hallelujah chorus: the should we stand or should we sit conundrum. It started well enough, the choir struck up and everyone remained calmly and attentively seated. But after a few seconds a short little lady in the front row tottered to her feet, sparking random arisings around the hall; soon it was a 50/50 split in the audience and not long afterwards I reached the “ah shag it I'll stand up too” moment myself. Honestly why all the palaver? I think some people just want to show that they are more dedicated to the Messiah than others - they remind me of the Sundays of my youth and the early kneelers during the eucharistic prayer at mass who would cough and wheeze at the back of the still-seated person in front of them. Ahem.

Anyway, a week later I was back for the Christmas party hosted by Martha and Rufus Wainwright and for the most part it was flipping brilliant, especially when either of those two were at the front. Rufus delivered a great version of Emmylou Harris' “Coat of many colours” and then an Ave Maria that had me wiping my eyes - his voice is so pure and true. Martha had many great moments and when she finished off the evening with The Fairytale of New York I jumped to my feet - no shenanigans here - and sang along at the top of my voice, probably the only Montrealer in the audience who knew every word. A great evening was had by all.